Can a New Industry Standard Keep Cellphones Out of Landfills?

Can a New Industry Standard Keep Cellphones Out of Landfills?

Cellphones make up the majority of e-waste by units, but less than 1 percent by weight.

Has your Apple iPhone 3 been languishing in a drawer since you got your iPhone 4? If you're like many Americans, you may have an old cell phone – or three – gathering dust in a drawer somewhere. U.S. households contain more than 1 billion old phones, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates, which comes out to more than three per person. Today, much of that ends up in landfills, potentially leaching lead and other toxic materials into the soil and water.

A new group, called the Device Renewal Forum (DRF), hopes to reduce the amount of wireless e-waste that ends up in landfills while boosting the market for refurbished phones -- and extending their lifetimes through reuse. If it succeeds, it could help stem the flood of electronic waste from phones: More cellphones ended up in the trash in 2009 than any other type of electronic product, according to the most recent data available from the EPA. That's 129 million cellphones, compared to 29.4 million computers and 22.7 million televisions.

The group plans to work with others in the wireless industry to come up with standards for testing and certifying refurbished devices, which it calls "renewed" devices. It includes wireless carrier Sprint Nextel (NYSE: S); industry service companies Brightstar Corp. and ModusLink Global Solutions; wireless consortium CDMA Development Group; and eRecyclingCorps, a company that partners with carriers and retailers to give consumers instant in-store trade-in credit for their old phones, which it then sells to consumers in developing countries.

David Edmondson, CEO of eRecyclingCorps, said the DRF plans to hold its first meeting Wednesday and hopes to have standards ready for review in some 60 to 90 days. The group hopes that other wireless carriers, device manufacturers and organizations that collect and distribute used devices will participate in the discussions and help create the standards, he added. Aside from agreeing to an industry standard for these phones, the DRF also intends to set up a process to monitor and inspect them for certification.

Like dealer certification for used and "pre-owned" cars, DRF certification will ensure that mobile devices are as good as new, Edmondson claims. While some refurbished phones today are really only cleaned up and given a new plastic cover so they look new, it will take more to get a phone certified as "renewed." For example, the standard will likely require fail points -- areas where a cellphone tends to break, such as the piece connecting the top and bottom of a clamshell or slider phone -- are replaced, even if they aren't yet broken, Edmondson said.

The idea is that more customers would buy used phones if they had more confidence in their quality. And that could expand the market for higher-end phones to emerging markets, where new smartphones remain beyond reach for most customers. As Edmondson puts it, "If you're living in India and have a per-capital income of $700 a year and go out and spend $200 on a new device, that's a major purchase for you and you need to be able to know that it's a quality device that's worth what you paid for it."

Of course, like certified used cars, these certified phones will "undoubtably" end up costing more than other used phones, Edmondson said. But certification reduces the risk that buyers will get a lemon. And it could reduce the cost of ownership over time, if it enables owners to keep their phones longer, Edmondson argues. After all, while average U.S. users switch phones every 18 months, average Indian users buy new phones every six years.

"The smartphone, which is being prematurely retired in rich, developed countries, can be renewed and put into the hands of people -- at a discount -- who wouldn't otherwise be able to afford it," Edmondson said. "Imagine the amount of people who would not be able to drive a car if the only cars available were new. … Access to wireless technologies is well proven to improve the economics of a country and its quality of life."

Meanwhile, more customers would trade in their old phones if they got credit for them, he said, and the higher prices for certified phones could also result in more credit. If that attracts more trade-ins, that would mean that more people in emerging markets could ultimately get phone technology that they can’t afford to buy new.

Also, when phones can no longer be renewed, trade-ins will ensure that they will be recycled instead of trashed. There's certainly plenty of room for improvement there: Less than 1 percent of the 1.68 billion wireless devices produced each year get recycled, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Aside from keeping mobile devices out of landfills, where they can leach lead and other toxic substances into the soil and water, increased recycling also could reduce the amount of new materials that need to be mined and processed to make new phones.

Darryl Sheath via Shutterstock